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Putting “your heart’s truth” into your stories

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Have you ever read a book and wondered why the author wrote it?

I’ve just finished reading two books and despite being quite well written I couldn’t understand why the authors put in the time and effort to produce these works.

The protagonists were weak, ineffectual and impossible to find sympathetic. It wasn’t that they were poorly drawn characters, this was how the authors chose to convey them.

Of course our heroes need to be flawed to be real, but come on, these guys had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

And the stories were like “so what?” Either nothing happened or what did happen was boring.

Readers don’t pick up a work of fiction to be reminded of their life. They read to escape their life. Most people’s lives are humdrum.

No?

Well mine sure is. There’s not one event in the last few years that’s worthy of eighty thousand words.

The solution? Don’t write about your life, at least not literally.

If your hero’s life isn’t at risk then at least the world as he knows should be. If neither his life nor his way-of-life are threatened, you’re writing a yawner.

While you’re thinking about this consider if you’re going to put immense time and effort into writing a novel why not make it worthwhile in the sense that it imparts something to the reader, something significant.

What’s significant? Well, that depends on what’s important to you.

Carol Bly, author of The Passionate, Accurate Story: Making Your Heart’s Truth into Literature, suggests you consider your “writing as a moral act …and build your fiction on strong ethical ground.”

Even before beginning to write a story Bly recommends you compose a “Values Listing,” a written record of the things most important to you.

Then throughout the writing process; the crafting of the plot, the developing of the characters, the imagining of the setting, return to this list to ensure these values continue to be identified in your work. That means these values are present in the issues and conflicts your characters confront and they themselves are grounded in or address these same principles.

Here’s Bly’s four-point value listing. My responses are in italic – if you’re influenced by them, well, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

VALUE’S LISTING:

 1. Two goals or values which make life good or bearable or would if they were in operation. Preserving the Environment/ Encouraging the Human Spirit

2. Two goals or values which cause injustice and suffering or lessening of joy. Wealth-Materialism/The Need to Control

3. Two missing goals or behaviors. As a child, you thought grown-up life would have these. Now that you are an adult you don’t see them around. Honesty-Integrity/Responsibility-Credibility

4. Two injustices you see about you and should keep an eye on, even on your wedding day. Racism-Discrimination/Destruction of Wild Things and Wild Places.

The values you write down aren’t about creating or even directing your story, but since you must imbue your characters with qualities why not make them ones that are important to you? Why can’t their motives be pure or at least well intentioned? Every story must have a conflict so make the fight a good fight, one worthy of a sympathetic hero.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something you wrote made your readers (some of your readers, a reader) enriched, enlightened, maybe even a better person?

Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, says,

“We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.”

Ask yourself, in the face of death what kind of men and women are the characters you create? Then put “your heart’s truth” into your story.

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